Among the transit cognoscenti, the promise of countdown clocks on the B Division has always seemed frustratingly out of reach. While the A division — the numbered lines — received countdown clocks as part of a signal upgrade a few years ago, the upgrades for the lettered lines are still decades away. Meanwhile, every few months, the MTA would promise some sort of interim solution in “three to five years.” Well, three to five years may finally have arrived as the MTA and Governor Cuomo announced a Bluetooth-based, eight-station 90-day pilot program for B Division countdown clocks.
The pilot — along the BMT Broadway line (N, Q, and R trains in Manhattan) — will feature to-the-minute countdown clocks with similar information as the ones on the A Division share but a different design. The information will be delivered from data transmitted by Bluetooth receivers on the trains to those on the platform and then fed into the digital displays. The countdown timers won’t be based off of data received while trains are in between stations so precise train location will still be an unknown, but the data should be reliable enough that passengers won’t know the difference.
Here’s how the press release described the technology:
The new clocks rely on technology that is straightforward, cost effective to deploy, and does not require large infrastructure. The system uses the existing wireless network in the stations and cloud computing, and involves four Bluetooth receivers placed in each station, two at each end of the platform. These receivers communicate with four Bluetooth devices that have been installed in the first and last cars of each train set running on the line. As the train enters and leaves a station, the system uses its arrival and departure time to estimate the time at which the train will reach the next stop in the line, and display the arrival times on the two LCD display screens that have been installed at each station.
The new displays, as you can see from the photo above, will feature the countdown timers but can also show PSAs and other contents (such as ads) concurrently, solving a major design flaw inherent in the current two-line displays. Now, when the MTA wants to issue a not-so-important message from the NYPD, it can do so on the portion of the screen that doesn’t include the countdown information.
“These actions,” Cuomo said in his press release today, “are the latest steps toward rebuilding and transforming the MTA into a unified, state-of-the-art transportation network that will meet the needs of current and future generations of New Yorkers. With this new and updated technology, we’ll help ensure riders have the information they need to get where they need to go.”
As part of the 90-day test, the system will be in use at the N/Q/R stations at 23rd Street; 28th Street; 34th Street; 42nd Street; 49th Street; 57th Street; 5th Avenue/59th Street; and Lexington Avenue/59th Street. During the evaluation period, the MTA says it will “identify and correct any issues with the new system. The goal is to evaluate the accuracy of location data, performance of Transit Wireless infrastructure, performance of the LCD displays, physical and network security of Bluetooth devices, security of data being transmitted, and internal access and use of data being generated.”
The governor says these clocks will ultimately be installed at all 269 stops along the lettered lines, but it’s not clear on what timeline these could be rolled out or at what cost. It is markedly cheaper than the CBTC upgrades, but unlike the CBTC upgrades, Bluetooth-based countdown clocks don’t increase service. They are a customer satisfaction measure through and through, one that both is welcomed and shouldn’t have taken so long to realize. But with Cuomo’s push to roll out Transit Wireless at all underground stations by the end of the year, this style of countdown clock became feasible. It is not yet clear how these could be deployed in stations that are above ground.
Still, the MTA appears committed to this way forward, and although I don’t always agree with the Governor’s transit priorities, he deserves praise for finally getting the MTA to move forward with technology projects that had been stalled for years. “Governor Cuomo challenged the MTA to develop an aggressive approach to putting countdown clocks on the lettered lines, and our technology team’s response has been phenomenal,” MTA Chairman and CEO Thomas F. Prendergast said in a statement. “In very short order they developed an easy to deploy, cost-effective system that we think will play a central role in bringing this essential service to more and more of our customers. We look forward to learning from this test, as well as to developing a roll out plan based on our findings.”